Telecom Italia kicks out CEO Amos Genish

In one of the least surprising board room purges ever, Telecom Italia (or TIM for short) has got rid of its CEO Amos Genish.

“TIM’s Board of Directors met today and deliberated by a majority vote to revoke with immediate effect all powers conferred to Director Amos Genish, giving mandate to the Chairman to resolve further obligations in relation to the existing working relationship with Genish,” said a TIM announcement today.

“In accordance with the succession plan for Executive Directors adopted by TIM, the proxies revoked to Director Amos Genish were provisionally assigned to the Chairman of the Board. The Chairman of the Nomination and Remuneration Committee has called for a meeting of the latter, in compliance with its responsibility in identifying the new CEO.

“A new meeting of the Board of Directors to appoint a new CEO was convened for November 18. The Board of Directors thanks Amos Genish for the work done in the interest of the Company and all its stakeholders in these fourteen months of intense activity.”

The removal of Genish had seemed inevitable since investor group Elliott won a battle with French conglomerate Vivendi, for control of the TIM board room, back in May of this year. Genish had previously been installed as CEO while Vivendi was still calling the shots, but after winning control Elliott made all the right noises about Genish having their full confidence.

This always seemed somewhat tenuous, with Genish’s loyalties presumably under suspicion and him providing at the very least a convenient scapegoat as and when things took a bad turn at the company. That came to pass last week when TIM said it was writing down the value of its assets by €2 billion and exacerbated by a disagreement between Genish and the board over what to do about TIM’s fixed line network.

Rumours emerged early this week that Genish’s days were numbered and that the board was about to convene a special meeting to agree on his demise. Hilariously TIM issued statements to the press denying such a thing was going to happen just a day or two before it did. TIM has a rich history of deceptive press communications but this outright lie was shameless even by its standards.

“This is a shock,” Analyst Paolo Pescatore of Midia Research told Telecoms.com. “However, ongoing turmoil at the company continues to drag it down. The company is very well placed given its assets and early move to secure a leadership position in 5G. Further tussles will hand its fierce rivals a competitive edge.”

So what next? Elliott apparently has less than a week to come up with an alternative CEO that will do its bidding and the remaining Vivendi board members will presumably oppose whoever they put forward. Above everything else, however, this is another opportunity to finally appoint a CEO whose first name is Tim. Surely everyone can agree on the importance of that.

SoftBank plans massive IPO for its Japanese telecoms business

Tech conglomerate SoftBank wants to raise a few trillion yen by offering some of its Japanese operator up for public consumption.

Around a third of SoftBank Japan’s shares will be served up in an initial public offering that is expected to raise around 2.4 trillion yen (21 billion bucks). If things go really well it could even challenge Alibaba for the biggest ever IPO, which would come in handy for a group that is especially exuberant in its spending.

“Through the listing of SB shares, SBG expects that the respective roles and valuations of the two companies will be clear,” said the announcement. “SBG is accelerating investments on a global scale, while SB is a core company to the Group’s telecommunications business. It is hoped that each of the two companies will be able to provide information regarding their businesses to the market with greater clarity and thereby better respond to the various needs of investors.

An alternative way of looking at it is that SoftBank Group is a bit short of cash and has decided that a sport of equity release from one of its subsidiary companies is the best way to get hold of the kind of cash it needs. As well as big acquisitions such as ARM, the group seems more concerned with general tech investment these days. This IPO seems to have been on the cards for a while, but it remains to be seen how much, if any, of the cash raised will be reinvested in SoftBank’s, Japanese network.

Qualcomm shares fall on concerns about its dispute with Apple

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm delivered fairly solid quarterly numbers but it lowered its outlook thanks mainly to Apple.

A slight year-on-year fall in revenue was still better than expected, as were its earnings per share. But guidance for the next quarter was reduced by around 20% for both chip shipments and licensing revenues. Apple seems to be to blame for both, with the gadget giant switching to Intel for its modems and the ongoing dispute over licensing terms resulting in a bunch of payments being withheld.

Qualcomm Q3 outlook

“We delivered a strong quarter, with Non-GAAP earnings per share above the high end of our prior expectations, on greater than expected chipset demand in QCT and lower operating expenses,” said Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm. “We are executing well on our strategic objectives, including driving the commercialization of 5G globally in 2019 and returning significant capital to our stockholders.”

Despite this Qualcomm’s share price was down 7% at time of writing. Speaking to Reuters, Qualcomm’s CFO George Davis speculated that the chip shipment downgrade might have been greater than many anticipated. On top of that the dispute with Apple is showing no sign of resolution, so investors may be increasingly inclined to price in a negative outcome for Qualcomm.

Bullish Ericsson raises its sales forecast

Ahead of its capital markets day, kit vendor Ericsson has announced it now hopes to bring in 10% more cash in 2020 than it previously did.

The company had recently set its sales target for 2020 at SEK 190-200 billion, but thanks to a more bullish outlook for its networking division, as well as the inclusion of revenue from Red Bee Media and a favourable currency adjustment, Ericsson is now aiming for SEK 210-220 billion. The overall operating margin target of 10% in the mid term and 12% in the longer term remains.

“With our focused strategy we have created a strong foundation of stability and profitability,” said Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm (pictured). “Our strengthened portfolio and competitive cost structure have enabled us to grow in the third quarter 2018, for the first time since 2014, on a constant currency basis, despite headwind from exited contracts and businesses. As the industry moves to 5G and IoT we are now preparing to take the next step to generate profitable growth in a selective and disciplined way.”

Here are the revised sales and margin targets by business segment.

SEK b. Networks Digital Services Managed Services Emerging Business and Other Group
2020 Net sales ambition 141 – 145(128 – 134) 41 – 43 23 – 25 5 – 7 210 – 220
2020 Operating margins 15% – 17% Low single digit 5% – 8%(4% – 6%) Break-even(current business)  >10%
Operating margin by 2022, at the latest 15% – 17% 10% – 12% 8% – 10% -  >12%

The target increase for Networks is down to a more optimistic view of the underlying market, the anticipation of some market share gains and diversification into ‘adjacent markets’, which presumably means selling networking gear to industries other than telecoms. The aim for Digital Services is just to break even, while automation and AI are expected to improve the margin at Managed Services.

Facebook referred to EU over suspect tracking methods

The UK’s Information Commissioners Office has referred an investigation into Facebook to the EU’s lead data protection watchdog over concerns about how the internet giant is tracking users.

The investigation, which was initially launched in May 2017, is primarily focused on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, though this might only be the tip of the iceberg for Facebook. Aside from fining the social media giant, the ICO has referred the case to the Irish Data Protection Commission, as the lead supervisory authority for Facebook under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As you can see below, Cambridge Analytica might only be the beginning of Facebook’s headache.

“Since we began, the scope of our investigation has extended to 30 organisations, we have formally interviewed 33 individuals and are working through forensic analysis of 700 terabytes of data,” said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “In layman’s terms, that’s the equivalent of 52 billion pages.

“Now I have published a report to Parliament that brings the various strands of our investigation up to date. It sets out what we have found and what we now know. But it is not the end. Some of the issues uncovered in our investigation are still ongoing or will require further investigation or action.”

Those who practise the dark arts of hyper-targeted advertising rarely give explanations as to how what information is being specifically held and how much of a detailed picture is being built up through primary sourced data and third-party sources. Few have a genuine understanding of the complexities of these advertising machines, though this is the foundation of various investigations. Transparency is the key word here, with many wanting the curtain to be pulled aside and the mechanics explained.

The fine is clear evidence the ICO is not happy with the state of affairs, though continuation of the investigation and referral to the EU overlords suggests there are more skeletons to be uncovered in-between Zuckerberg’s V-neck jumpers and starch ironed chinos.

“We have referred our ongoing concerns about Facebook’s targeting functions and techniques that are used to monitor individuals’ browsing habits, interactions and behaviour across the internet and different devices to the to the IDPC,” said Denham.

The initial focus of the investigation might have been political influence, though the more details which emerge, the less comfortable pro-privacy bureaucrats in Brussels are likely to feel. Regulating the slippery Silicon Valley natives has always been a tricky job, but with the Facebook advertising machine becoming increasingly exposed, the rulebook governing the data sharing economy might well be in need of a refresh.

Softbank is now more of a VC than a telco group

Back in 2016 when Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son announced plans for the $100 billion Vision Fund it looks like a ludicrous plan, but with such incredible growth perhaps we should ask whether Son has been missing his calling for decades.

Looking at the financials for the first half of 2018, the most interesting story aspect is linked back to the Softbank Vision Fund (SVF) and Delta Fund (DF) investment bodies. Over the first six months, net sales for the Softbank Group came in at roughly $41 billion, with the team collecting an operating income of roughly $12.5 billion. The operating income attributable to the SVF and DF is $5.7 billion, roughly 45%.

45% might sound like a good number, but it becomes even more impressive when you consider how the funds are accelerating. In the first three months of 2018, the funds accounted for approximately 33% of operating income, but this ratio increases to 55% when you look at the second quarter alone. As you can see from the table below, the cash being generated by the funds is quickly racking up.

Q3 2017 Q4 2017 Q1 2018 Q2 2018
Gain on investments for SVF and DF $530 million $860 million 2.18 billion 3.55 billion
Realized gain on investments NA NA NA 1.29 billion
Unrealized gain on valuation of investments $490 million $830 million $2.24 billion $2.27 billion
Interest and dividend from investments $33 million $20 million $12 million $10 million

(Approximate values after currency conversion)

The fund itself, which has come under pressure recently due to involvement from Saudi Arabia, has consistently been consistently questioned by investors, though perhaps monstrous profit is a language which they will be more familiar with. Son has prioritised artificial intelligence in a portfolio which contains investments in Uber, Nvidia, Arm, GM Cruise, Doordash and Compass. The only one which doesn’t really fit into the family is WeWork, a shared office business which would be more comfortable inside a real-estate investment portfolio. That said, few will argue with the results.

Looking at the rest of the business, the story is pretty positive if less glamorous next to these monstrous profits. Total revenues and profits are up in the Softbank telco business, while the net gain on customer subscriptions is up approximately 1.2 million in comparison to the same period of 2017. Churn was also at a healthy 0.93% for the quarter and ARPU is flat. Not a bad return for the period. Sprint in another which is performing surprisingly well. Although subscription numbers are down sequentially, year-on-year Sprint managed to find 520,000 subscriptions from somewhere.

Son’s traditional stomping ground is looking very healthy, though with the acceleration of the VCs you really have to wonder whether the audacious businessman has been in the wrong industry all these years.

BT increases profit on declining revenues by getting rid of 2,000 people

Operator group BT saw its revenues decline in the six months to the end of September but still managed a 30% increase in net profit.

Profit is revenue minus overheads and reducing the latter is a time-honoured way for companies to keep themselves in the black. Among BT’s five strategic highlights for the fiscal half-year, which included finding a new CEO and demonstrating its 5G capability, was the ‘removal’ of around 2,000 roles over that time. The other two were a small NPS gain and some vague Openreach achievement.

“We continued to generate positive momentum in the second quarter resulting in encouraging results for the half year,” said Chief Exec Gaving Patterson, possibly for the last time. “We are successfully delivering against the core pillars of our strategy with improved customer experience metrics, accelerating ultrafast deployment and positive progress towards transforming our operating model.

“In consumer, we continue to see strong sales of our converged product, BT Plus, and have seen good mobile sales following new handset launches. Last month EE demonstrated 5G capability from a live site in Canary Wharf. We have maintained momentum in our enterprise businesses despite legacy product declines.”

BT had some fun with its slide deck this quarter, a highlight being the below attempt to illustrate its group strategy via the kind of rectangle-stacking larks usually associated with software architecture diagrams. It presumably took a while to do but apart from being an efficient way to display a number of generic corporate aspirations it’s not obvious what BT is trying to say.

BT Q3 2018 slide 1

There were also distinct slides summarising the performance of each business group. As you can see below revenue growth was hard to find, and it’s interesting to note which other metrics were cherry-picked to show the division in the best light. In terms of revenue BT remains very much a work in progress but making a decent profit is certainly a step in the right direction. You can read further analysis on this here.

BT Q3 2018 slide 2

BT Q3 2018 slide 3

BT Q3 2018 slide 4

BT Q3 2018 slide 5

BT Q3 2018 slide 6

 

How easy will it be for IBM to digest Red Hat?

Imagine our surprise the day before a lunch scheduled with the CTO of Red Hat when IBM announced it was buying his company.

Sometimes the journalism gods, those that are left, smile on even the humblest of hacks and today it was our turn. Lunch with Chris Wright (pictured below, with said hack) had already been arranged with the promise of delivering the kind of light Linux chit-chat over a glass of red that we all secretly crave. But then, out of the blue (pun intended) IBM announced it’s going to buy Red Hat for $34 billion and things suddenly got a bit more spicy.

Now, you don’t get to be the CTO of a major company by speaking injudiciously to the press, so we didn’t expect Wright to have much to say on the relative merits of the acquisition itself. Instead we wanted to know more about what Red Hat brings to the table, such that a venerable tech giant would want to drop such a serious chunk of change on it.

The core of Red Hat’s product strategy for the past few years has been the hybrid cloud. In its simplest terms this refers to the use of both private, on-premise server capacity and the public cloud as found in colossal data centers provided by the likes of AWS, Microsoft and Google. Increasingly this applies to pretty much all larger enterprises so it’s a pretty important place to be if you’re serious about the B2B tech space.

Sharing this writer’s love of a pun, Wright conceded that the cloud is a nebulous term, but that’s why you need companies that have made it their business to get their heads around it, such as Red Hat. IBM is, and always has been, a B2B tech company, so it’s easy to see why it would want to buy a company that specialises in one of the most important and arcane manifestations of that.

Everyone in tech has probably had to puzzle over one of those baffling software architecture slides that attempt to explain how everything fits together via the use of endless rectangles piled on top of each other like some geeky game of Jenga. Throw hundreds of those into a virtualised environment spanning any number of actual physical locations and you get somewhere close to the kind of challenge faced by today’s CTO.

Between the cloud and the cloud user lies an extended value chain of technologies and services dedicated to making that relationship as useful and intuitive as possible. One good example of this is the banking app, through which anyone can now whizz thousands of pounds around the world in an instant. For this to be made possible a hell of a lot of robust technologies have to exist between the bank’s servers and the client device.

According to Wright, Red Hat plays across that whole value chain, so for that reason alone it’s easy to see its appeal to IBM. But Red Hat is also deeply rooted in the Linux, open-source culture, which isn’t necessarily an obvious fit with IBM’s notoriously rigid corporate philosophy. As with so much M&A, how effectively the cultures of the two organisations are reconciled will be the single most important factor in determining whether this deal goes down smoothly or results in corporate indigestion.

Chris Wright Red Hat Telecoms

IBM aims to boost its strategic imperatives with $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat

IBM has announced by far the largest acquisition in its history with the acquisition of cloud and open source software vendor Red Hat.

$34 billion is several times more than IBM has previously spent on an acquisition, which indicates just how important it thinks this is to its future prosperity. Red Hat has expanded from a developer of Linux-based business software to being involved in most places you might find B2B open source software, including the cloud and telecoms.

While most venerable tech companies seem to be in a constant state of so-called transformation, this has especially been the case with IBM as it seeks to replace its declining legacy businesses with shiny new ones. As a consequence it has four clear strategic imperatives in the form of cloud, security, analytics and mobile, revenue from which recently overtook legacy stuff for the first time.

But IBM has apparently decided this organic transformation isn’t happening quickly enough and has decided a nice, juicy bit of M&A is required to hasten the process. Most reports are focusing on how Red Hat will contribute to IBM’s hybrid cloud efforts, and thus give it a boost in competing with the likes of Amazon, but Red Hat’s activities in the telco cloud specifically shouldn’t be underplayed.

“The acquisition of Red Hat is a game-changer,” hyperbolised IBM Dictator (Chairman, President and CEO) Ginni Rometty. “It changes everything about the cloud market. IBM will become the world’s number one hybrid cloud provider, offering companies the only open cloud solution that will unlock the full value of the cloud for their businesses.

“Most companies today are only 20 percent along their cloud journey, renting compute power to cut costs,” she said. “The next 80 percent is about unlocking real business value and driving growth. This is the next chapter of the cloud. It requires shifting business applications to hybrid cloud, extracting more data and optimizing every part of the business, from supply chains to sales.”

IBM Red Hat Rometty Whitehurst cropped

“Open source is the default choice for modern IT solutions, and I’m incredibly proud of the role Red Hat has played in making that a reality in the enterprise,” said Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO, Red Hat (pictured, with Rometty). “Joining forces with IBM will provide us with a greater level of scale, resources and capabilities to accelerate the impact of open source as the basis for digital transformation and bring Red Hat to an even wider audience –  all while preserving our unique culture and unwavering commitment to open source innovation.”

Cloud and open source have been major themes in the tech M&A scene recently. Microsoft continued its transition from closed software box-shifter with the recent $7.5 billion acquisition of code sharing platform GitHub. Meanwhile open source big data vendors Cloudera and Hortonworks have decided to merge and earlier this year Salsforce dropped $6.5 billion on MuleSoft to power its Integration Cloud.

In M&A, the party line from the company being acquired is usually something along the lines of it enabling them to take the next step in its evolution thanks to the greater resources of its new parent, and this was no exception. “Powered by IBM, we can dramatically scale and accelerate what we are doing today,” said Whitehurst in his email to staff announcing the deal. “Imagine Red Hat with greater resources to grow into the opportunity ahead of us. Imagine Red Hat with the ability to invest even more and faster to accelerate open source innovation in emerging areas.” And so on.

He went on to explain that, while he will report directly to Rometty, Red Hat will continue to operate as a ‘distinct unit’, whatever that means. Usually this sort of talk is designed to sell the concept that it will remain the same company it was before the acquisition, but with loads more cash to play with. Let’s see.

IBM would be mad to mess around with Red Hat too much as it seems to be doing just fine and reported 14% revenue growth in its last quarterlies. Then again you don’t pay a 60% premium for a company just to accrue its revenue and how IBM integrates Red Hat into the rest of its offerings will be what determines the success of this bold move. There are, sadly, no signs the company plans to change its name to Big Blue Hat, which is a worrying early a missed opportunity.

ZTE rediscovers profit at the conclusion of a nightmare year

Chinese kit vendor ZTE actually managed to turn a profit in Q3 2018 now that everyone has stopped victimising it.

The RMB 564 million was still down 65% year-on-year, but compared to the utter car crash that has been its quarterly announcements in the intervening time, any kind of profit represents a pretty significant victory in its own right. The amount of profit was right in the middle of the guidance offered at the end of August and ZTE is clearly desperate to start talking about something other than its various indiscretions.

“ZTE’s major business are rapidly recovering with the negotiation and signing of new orders and the further implementation of existing orders,” said the earnings announcement. “Meanwhile, the company has resumed normal operations in R&D, production and logistics. Specifically, its production and purchasing capabilities have been back on track, and its R&D progress has kept pace with the target preset at the beginning of the year. Also, ZTE has fully restored its customer services.”

As you can see from the summary table below, despite claiming it was pretty much dead in the water as recently as May of this year, ZTE still managed to pull in enough business to keep the losses for the first nine months of the year under control. While there’s no question it was in serious trouble, these figures also suggest ZTE might have been hamming things up a bit in the search for the mitigation it eventually achieved.

ZTE Q3 2018